As we pulled in at the gate of the airport in Antananarivo I had a sigh of relief that we completed our family trip in Madagascar without any mishap.
The moment we parked, before I could even get out, we were surrounded by locals. They had blocked the door and were begging us to give them paper bills for coins. They said “Problem with the bank.” There were about 8-10 people between me and my husband, all shrieking “Please please please...”
Carlo was already out, I didn't like that we were blocked from each other. The way these people were asking, swarming around us and distracting attention, I suspected something was wrong. I asked our guide.
“Jean-Claude, is this a scam?”
His reply was “I don't know.”
Seeing his unconcerned, calm attitude, and knowing that banks do not accept coins when exchanging money, we wanted to help them out.
They seemed desperate. They were even offering “22 Euros in exchange for 20 Euros.” Of course, you don't want to take advantage of the bad situation of these people. These must have been coins that foreigners gave as tips for carrying their bags or something.
I started changing the money. In the meantime, I was very bothered that Carlo was standing there alone, surrounded by all the locals. They could have just pulled out his wallet or something else without him noticing. You never stand in the crowd alone like that. I had my back covered in the safety of the van, but I still felt helpless I couldn't reach out to Carlo. He had started changing too and I couldn't stop him, which added another stress to me. I handle the money when we are travelling. We got into a couple of troubling situations beforehand. He is not used to travel and deal with hustlers in such countries. I am. Yet here we were, and I was getting annoyed with the situation.
I changed a couple of 20 Euros. But they kept asking for more.
“Please, me too, me too...”
But you cannot keep changing forever, help them all out. There are other foreigners around, they do a bit too, I figured out. Then I said “Enough!”
If you don't say enough and act like you mean it, you never get out of the pressure. It's really bothering.
So we got our luggage, went in, did the check-in, passed through immigration and security. When we finally sat down in peace, Carlo said “Let's count the money.” I wasn't keen on doing it to be honest, I was just glad that the whole ordeal was over. Still, we gathered all the coins between Carlo and me, started counting. Sure enough, money was missing. In between us, we had given them 160 Euros and we had less than 80 Euros in coins now all together.
But how could that be?
We had seen them count the money.
Then we figured it out. They had counted the coins in their own hands. After counting, when giving the coins in our hands, they must have kept some in their palm. The bigger coins like 1-2 Euros were obviously closer to their thumbs, so they emptied the smaller change 10-20 cents in our hands.
Then I remembered. I remembered a detail. When the first man counted and gave the money to me, I had started counting it myself. Because that's what I always do automatically. Then they started making turmoil, clamoring “Please madame please, me too” etc. This was of course meant to distract my attention. I'm sorry to say it worked
It feels miserable to be tricked. It feels even doubly miserable to be swindled when you were trying to help someone out.
What makes it all the worse is this robs trust. I've had another incident where someone whom I gave money to started hassling me for more money. I kept saying “No”, he wouldn't stop. You can be sure, I'm not helping anybody out from now on. I have trusted people until now and have been disillusioned too many times. Mostly, people take advantage of your goodwill. This includes people whom I opened up my house to robbing my stuff. It feels bad. It actually feels awful. Be it my best friend, or someone whom I had called best-friend for a decade “robbing” my car for her boyfriend, be it a total stranger... True, I am the stupid one in each of these situations. I am the one who trusted and gave people my house, my car without any binding agreement; yet, this doesn't excuse the behavior. True, there are people who return the favor and do not exploit you. But they are the small minority. No, I won't keep on doing good for their sake, not when I end up feeling so bad about it afterwards. I won't take my chances again. I won't trust people.
Worse yet, I won't ever try to help people I don't know.
My husband said we should report to the police. I tried to. I even went out of the airport to find the police. Yet, they didn't care. The three officers I found just brushed me off when I told them what had happened. Another told me to show her the people and walked away. I mean how can you identify them?! I didn't look at their faces. I wouldn't have recognized even if one of them was my friend, I am a looker but non-seer. Still... I tried to have a look around. I had one idea of a woman whom I had noticed somehow, but I could never be sure; so no need to accuse anyone. I went back in disheartened.
Then I started questioning...
Why and how come they get to do this?... I wondered about the people who swindled us. What kind of people were they, what were their lives like? How many times had they done this before, how had this scam first occurred to them? Was it a collective thing that came up as a solution to their plight or was it the doing of one person organizing the others? How did they split the money after the deal? Did each get what s/he could get away with or did they share as they were all there doing their part? I wondered if they fought with each other over their share.
I have no answers to any of these questions. I can only guess there are different types of personalities and different reasons that drive people to do such things. Some learn, they are forced to learn to swindle. I suppose I'd have learnt it too if I was left in dire circumstances. Instead of suffering or resigning to my fate, I'd have done something to get some food for my family. I wouldn't have done anything harmful. I wouldn't have stolen probably. Like breaking into someone's house or mugging anyone. No, I wouldn't be able to do that kind of stealing. But yeah, if I could get away with some sneaky means, like messing up with bank accounts, or picking up money from a stack which no one would notice, I'd have done it. I could perhaps even swindle people like they did with us. Who knows? I might be capable of doing that. You never know such things until you are tested.
The reason I don't do any of these now is not a sign of my virtue but a sign of my circumstances not requiring me to do such things. I most probably would have rationalized my behavior if I was in their place. What's wrong with what they did? They didn't harm us. Not physically. They didn't harm us much materially either. They know we have money, and it's obvious we can afford to lose that money without any significant setback in our life circumstances. It is true.
It is also true that they can make better use of that money. Yeah, I have to be fair. Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in Africa. Like the way I reasoned when I had money stolen in Buenos Aires back in 2001, I had reasoned “I'm glad my money went into the Argentinian economy. They can use it. I hope the man used it for something good like buying his sick mother medicines or food for his children.”
Besides, I give money away anyway. I donate. I can assume I donated that money to them.
The thing is... I cannot really assume that. Because I want to pick whom I donate “my” money to. I want to get to decide on that. And I definitely would have preferred to donate it to people who do not even ask let alone resort to such tricks which rob trust.
That is the main reason I hurt. That my trust has been stolen. I didn't think much highly of humanity before this, knowing all the cruelty man can impose on another. All the killings, all the torture, all the slavery, all the kidnappings, all the human trafficking, all the sexual abuse... I cannot complain about my share. (You always need to see the bigger perspective and keep it in mind. Always.) I am among the fortunate. At least until now I've been so. Still... it adds one more tile upon the pile of reasons to retreat from society at large.
May God (or whatever that higher force is) protect people from man's cruelty.
PS: This wouldn't have happened if I was travelling alone. What makes it worse is that it happened under the watch of a guide, it certainly wouldn't have happened if we were on our own either.
Jean-Claude should have intervened on our behalf and scattered the people away from us. So we believe it was a grave failing on his part as a guide. Sadly, his nonchalant attitude even after I asked him if this was a scam made us question if he was in on this scam. Jean-Claude works for ToursByLocals, a five-star firm. We have notified them of the situation. Unfortunately, they didn't do anything about it. So just beware of Jean-Claude in Madagascar.